Category: Marine Ecosystems

Temperature, shoreline modification, critical ecosystems: coral reefs, mangroves; fisheries

July was hot!

Widespread heat set record temps globally

July was remarkably warm, in fact July’s average temperatures—for both land and sea–were the highest monthly temperatures ever recorded since 1850.  This image from NOAA illustrates some of the more noteworthy records set last month.


I should also mention that Berkeley Earth (, in their summary of 2018 global temperatures published early this year, estimated that 2019 would “…likely… be warmer than 2018, but unlikely to be warmer than the current record year, 2016.  At present it appears that there is roughly a 50% likelihood that 2019 will become the 2nd warmest years since 1850.” As of August 15, they are now predicting a 90% probability of this occurring.   This screenshot from Robert Rohde’s (BerkeleyEarth) Twitter feed illustrates long-term weather stations (those with at least 40 years of records) that have reported a daily, monthly or all-time record high temperature from May 1st to July 31st.  Looks like a sea of red!

Screenshot, August 19 @RARohde

Some of the more attention-grabbing aspects of the late July heat wave came from Greenland.

Warm air masses from Europe arrived over Greenland late in July and early August, causing record-setting melting across about 90% of the ice sheet during a five-day event.  Melt area reached 154,500 square miles, 18% larger than the 1988-2017 average. The record warmth established an all-time high melt event for this monthly period, and total ice mass loss for 2019 is nearly equal to that of 2012, the year of highest loss for the satellite-era.  (National Snow and Ice Data Center Greenland Today)

It’s not all about the records!

Considerable attention has been given to elevated Arctic temperatures, increased ice-sheet melt and its contributions to sea-level rise,  and low seasonal sea-ice coverage, but several other issues attending warming air and sea temperatures warrant discussion as well.   Over the longer term—decades, not days, warming temperatures are measurably impacting terrestrial and marine ecosystems.  These “slow” ecosystem changes aren’t as attention-grabbing as all-time records of high temperature or ice melt, but are one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Anthropocene. (see “The Anthropocene” tab on the Home page).  Let’s look at a couple of examples, one from terrestrial ecosystems, and one from marine ecosystems. 

In a July 10 article (Hydrologic Intensity) the authors demonstrate in a more complete fashion than previous work, the linkage between rising air temperatures and acceleration of the hydrological cycle.  Their model incorporates both the supply of water (precipitation) and demand (evapotranspiration) between the surface and the atmosphere.  Reinforcing other research that suggests hydrologic intensification is occurring, the new research shows “widespread hydrologic intenstification from 1979-2017 across much of the global land surface, which is expected to continue into the future.”  The findings add a little more support to the likelihood of a climate future where there is “increased precipitation intensity along with more days with low precipitation.”  The temporal and spatial distribution of hydrologic intensification will have important consequences ranging from urban flood control to the management of  agroecosystems—an issue of considerable importance as population rises this century. 

Marine fisheries are also significant food sources for global populations.  In an article published in March (Science researchers looked at 235 marine fisheries (fish and invertebrates) from 38 ecoregions, representing one-third of reported global catch.   They  concluded that there has been a statistically significant decline in the maximum sustainable yield of 4.1% from 1930 to 2010 that is linked to warming oceans. Five of the ecoregions had losses of 15 to 35%. The authors conclude that “ocean warming has driven declines in marine fisheries productivity and the potential for sustainable fisheries catches.”  These trends are exacerbated by overfishing, but sound management plans incorporating temperature-driven trends have the potential for remediating these changes. 

Both examples suggest that temperature-driven changes to key provisioning services of  terrestrial and marine ecosystems are of equal importance to the headline-grabbing temperature and ice-melt records of the last month.  These changes are “slow-motion” impacts of a warming world; like rising sea-levels, ecosystem changes will have profound impacts, but are invisible over short-term news and policy cycles in which we appear to be ensnared.   

Blog Image Source:

Coral Reefs

Source: Section; Karki, et al., http://

  • Coral reefs are the most diverse coastal ecosystems on earth and of disproportionate ecological, economic and food security importance to the Asia-Pacific region which has an inordinate proportion of the world’s healthy coral reefs.  Coral diversity is highest in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • The death of reef-forming corals undermines resilience of coastal communities, and can lead to the collapse of important coastal ecosystems.
  • One third of reef- building corals in the region are threatened.
  • Loss of habitat quality, heavy damage to entire reefs are major threats in the region. In the case of El Niño event in 1998, 16 per cent of the world’s coral reefs and 50 per cent of those in the Indian Ocean were destroyed
  • Increase in sea temperature and ocean acidification have been projected as major drivers of change along coastal environments which may lead to decline in coral reefs.
  • Increasing outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish, a native predator that has boom bust cycles linked to environmental pollution from farm lined estuaries affected The Great Barrier Reef.
  • Coral bleaching events are also increasingly devastating to the northern two thirds of the reef over the last few years where coral-algae associations are disrupted by high sea temperature.  Habitats and communities in the Great Barrier Reef ranged from poor to worsening at the end of 2015, although some species like green turtle populations improved.
  • Among the most serious emerging threats to coral reefs are coral diseases, which have devastated coral populations throughout the Caribbean since the 1980s and accompanied the mass coral bleaching there in 2005 and 2006. Over 90 per cent of the main reef forming corals in the Caribbean have now died due to coral disease with the severity of disease outbreaks commonly correlated with corals stressed by bleaching.  Coral diseases are also being observed more frequently on Indo-Pacific reefs in heretofore unrecorded places such the Great Barrier Reef, areas of Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The outbreaks seem to be related to bacterial infections and other introduced disease organisms, increasing pollution, human disturbance and increasing sea temperature, all of which have put reef-forming corals at serious risk.

Marine Ecosystems

Marine ecosystems, from coastal to deep sea, now show the influence of human actions, with coastal marine ecosystems showing both large historical losses of extent and condition as well as rapid ongoing declines (established but incomplete) {,}

  • Direct exploitation of fish and seafood has the largest relative impact in the oceans (well established) {}.
  • The direct driver with the second highest impact on the oceans is the many changes in the uses of the sea and coast land (well established) {} (See Summary of Observed Changes)

Distribution Of Changes In The Global Ocean

Source:  Halpern  (B. S., Walbridge, S., Selkoe, K. A., Kappel, C. V., Micheli, F., D’Agrosa, C., … Watson, R. (2008). A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems. Science, 319(5865), 948–952.doi:10.1126/science.1149345 

1.  Every square kilometer of the ocean is affected by some anthropogenic driver of ecological change

2.  Over 41% of the world’s oceans have medium to very high cumulative impacts:

  • North and Norwegian seas, South and East China seas, Eastern Caribbean, North American eastern seaboard, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, Bering Sea, and the waters around Sri Lanka.

3.  Lowest impact areas include high-latitude Arctic and Antarctic poles, but this may change due to future polar ice loss

4.  Ecosystems with highest impacts include hard and soft continental shelves and rocky reefs, and coral reefs.

Summary of Observed Changes

Temperature Changes

  •  Rising sea surface temperatures; reduction in oxygen content; stratification; coral bleaching
  • Heat content increasing deeper into the ocean
  • Global ocean animal biomass consistently declines with climate change, and that these impacts are amplified at higher trophic levels (Source: Lotze, et al., Global ensemble projections reveal trophic amplification of ocean biomass declines with climate change. Ocean biomass declines with climate change
Source: Ocean biomass declines with climate change

Rising Sea Levels (“Looking past the horizon of 2100” Nature Climate Change)

  • Thermal expansion (warmer water expands)
  • Increased runoff from land-based ice sheets
    • Greenland
    • Antarctica
    • Mountain Glaciers

Changes in the Salinity of Seawater

  • Changes to the thermohaline circulation
  • Increased likelihood of seawater stratification

Threats to Coastal Populations and Infrastructure

  • Salt-water intrusion
  • Drowning forests
  • Inland migration of wetlands

Arctic Sea Ice is Shrinking

  • Warming air temperatures increase rate of melting
  • Positive feedback albedo loop

Increasing Ocean Acidity

  • Absorption of CO2 from atmosphere
  • Impacts to shell-forming species, including coralsAbsorption of CO2 from atmosphere

Land-Based Impacts

1.  Inorganic and organic pollutants

2.  Nutrient runoff (point and non-point) and associated hypoxia

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

3.  Aquaculture

4.  Invasive species

5.  Habitat destruction and alteration; e.g., coastal engineering; tourist development;  salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs

6.  Input and transfer of waterborne pathogens (runoff, aquaculture)

7.  Air pollution

a.  Toxic chemicals; e.g., POP’s over the Arctic zone by airborne volatilization;

b.    Mercury                          

Source:  Lavoie, R.A., Bouffard, A., Maranger, R., Amyot, M., 2018. Mercury transport and human exposure from global marine fisheries. Sci. Rep. 8, 6705.

Significance:  Human activities have increased the global circulation of mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Mercury can be converted into methylmercury, which biomagnifies along aquatic food chains and leads to high exposure in fish-eating populations.

Trends:  Mercury export from the ocean increased over time as a function of fishing pressure, especially on upper-trophic-level organisms. In 2014, over 13 metric tonnes of mercury were exported from the ocean. Asian countries were important contributors of mercury export in the last decades and the western Pacific Ocean was identified as the main source.

Estimates of per capita mercury exposure through fish consumption showed that populations in 38% of the 175 countries assessed, mainly insular and developing nations, were exposed to doses of methylmercury above governmental thresholds.

Given the high mercury intake through seafood consumption observed in several understudied yet vulnerable coastal communities, we recommend a comprehensive assessment of the health exposure risk of those populations.

Temporal trends (1950‒2014) of marine fisheries catches (dashed lines) and mercury exported (full lines). (a) Entire ocean (blue) and coastal (red) and high seas (orange) with breakpoint (circle) ± standard error (horizontal line). (b) Entire ocean (blue) and trophic levels (TL) rounded to the nearest integer: 4 (red), 3 (orange), and 2 (green).

Nutrients (N,P): Eutrophication, Dead Zones

Plastics (shipping, fishing, land-based sources)

  • Microplastics (nanoparticles; food chain)
  • Macroplastics (ingestion, entanglement, habitat loss (shorelines))
    • Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Source:   Lebreton, L, Slat, B, Ferrari, F, Sainte-Rose, B, Aitken, J, Marthouse, R, Hajbane, S, Cunsolo, S, Schwarz, A, Levivier, A, Noble, K, Debeljak, P, Maral, H, Schoeneich-Argent, R, Brambini, R & Reisser, J 2018, ‘Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic‘, Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 4666.

  • Ocean plastic can persist in sea surface waters, eventually accumulating in remote areas of the world’s oceans.
  • Our model, calibrated with data from multi-vessel and aircraft surveys, predicted at least 79 (45–129) thousand tonnes of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million km2; a figure four to sixteen times higher than previously reported.
  • Over three-quarters of the GPGP mass was carried by debris larger than 5 cm and at least 46% was comprised of fishing nets. Microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass but 94% of the estimated 1.8 (1.1–3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area.
  • Plastic collected during our study has specific characteristics such as small surface-to-volume ratio, indicating that only certain types of debris have the capacity to persist and accumulate at the surface of the GPGP.

Finally, our results suggest that ocean plastic pollution within the GPGP is increasing exponentially and at a faster rate  than the surrounding waters.

Decadal evolution of microplastic concentration in the GPGP. Mean (circles) and standard error (whiskers) of microplastic mass concentrations measured by surface net tows conducted in different decades, within (light blue) and around (dark grey) the GPGP. Dashed lines are exponential fits to the averages expressed in g km−2: f(x) = exp(a*x) + b, with x expressed in number of years after 1900, a = 0.06121, b = 151.3, R2 = 0.92 for within GPGP and a = 0.04903, b = −7.138, R2 = 0.78 for around the GPGP.

Land Loss in Coastal Areas

Source:  Mentaschi, et al., Global long-term observations of coastal erosion and accretion, Scientific Reports volume 8, Article number: 12876 (2018)

On a global scale, between 1984 and 2015, the loss of permanent land in coastal areas amounts to almost 28,000 km2, roughly equivalent to the surface area of Haiti (Fig. a). This is almost twice as large as the surface of gained land (about 14,000 km2) over the same period. On the other hand, the overall surface of gained active zone (about 25,000 km2) is more than two times larger than the surface of lost active zone (about 11,500 km2). Overall, the gain of active zone roughly balances the loss of land, and the gain of land balances the loss of active zone. This translates into a net loss of approximately 14,000 km2 of surface for human settlements and terrestrial ecosystems (Fig. b).

Source:  Mentaschi, et al., Global long-term observations of coastal erosion and accretion, Scientific Reports volume 8, Article number: 12876 (2018)
On a global scale, between 1984 and 2015, the loss of permanent land in coastal areas amounts to almost 28,000 km2, roughly equivalent to the surface area of Haiti (Fig. a). This is almost twice as large as the surface of gained land (about 14,000 km2) over the same period. On the other hand, the overall surface of gained active zone (about 25,000 km2) is more than two times larger than the surface of lost active zone (about 11,500 km2). Overall, the gain of active zone roughly balances the loss of land, and the gain of land balances the loss of active zone. This translates into a net loss of approximately 14,000 km2 of surface for human settlements and terrestrial ecosystems (Fig. b).

Size distribution of cross-shore transition length above 50 m, for erosion and accretion of land (a) and active zone (b). Lost (c) and gained (d) land around the world; lost (f) and gained (g) active zone; balance gained – lost land (e) and active zone (h). Maps show the length of cross-shore erosion and accretion aggregated on coastal segments of 100 km. In all the maps the 4 spots with the highest local transition along a 250 m transect are indicated.

Drivers of shoreline change around the world

List of local cases of erosion/accretion discussed in Mentaschi, et al The legend provides for each spot a brief summary of the drivers of shoreline change
Land Loss in Coastal Areas: Shoreline modification “masks” true rates of shoreline change along the Atlantic Seaboard

Source:  Armstrong, S. B., &  Lazarus, E. D. 2019).  Masked shoreline erosion at large spatial scales as a collective effect of beach nourishmentEarth’s Future,  7,  74– 84

 (R)ecent rates of shoreline change along the U.S. Atlantic Coast are, on average, less erosional than historical rates. This shift has occurred despite evidence of intensified environmental forcing, including acceleration in rates of relative sea‐level rise and increased significant wave height in offshore wave climates. We suggest that the use, since the 1960s, of beach nourishment as the predominant form of mitigation against chronic coastal erosion in the United States…could explain the unexpected reversal in shoreline‐change trends.

Using U.S. Geological Survey shoreline records from 1830–2007 spanning more than 2,500 km of the U.S. Atlantic Coast, we calculate a mean rate of shoreline change, prior to 1960, of −55 cm/year (a negative rate denotes erosion). After 1960, the mean rate reverses to approximately +5 cm/year, indicating widespread apparent accretion despite steady (and, in some places, accelerated) sea‐level rise over the same period.

Cumulative sediment input from decades of beach‐nourishment projects may have sufficiently altered shoreline position to mask “true” rates of shoreline change. Our analysis suggests that long‐term rates of shoreline change typically used to assess coastal hazard may be systematically underestimated. We also suggest that the overall effect of beach nourishment along of the U.S. Atlantic Coast is extensive enough to constitute a quantitative signature of coastal geoengineering and may serve as a bellwether for nourishment‐dominated shorelines elsewhere in the world.